Note to Younger Self on Overcoming Anxiety

In this issue, the executive director of a Fortune 50 corporation discusses her own experience with anxiety and depression.

More than her professional achievements, she is most proud of the fact that despite her difficulties with learning, she has earned two graduate degrees, and despite her social phobia, she has traveled alone to over 50 countries.

She has been a tremendous asset to our mental-health awareness efforts, and we’re delighted she’s opened up about her own struggle; due to privacy considerations, no personal information is being published.

I want to speak to you directly from a place of profound and extensive personal experience in the hope that few things that worked for me would connect with you and assist you on your journey.

I used to suffer from crippling social anxiety and depression, which started in my early teens and continued until I was in my early thirties. I couldn’t leave the house at its worst.

In general, I was able to deal with required aspects of my life, such as school or employment, by eliminating any unstructured time that exposed me to situations that brought me grief.

I would arrive at school/work at the last possible moment and leave as soon as feasible.

Looking back, I was in survival mode - I had no idea what was going on with me (extreme anxiety). When I had to speak in front of a group of people, I felt like I was drowning, the schoolyard felt like a firing line, and even walking to the grocery store was uncomfortable. For most of my life, this was a highly personal source of pain and shame.

If I could go back in time, here’s what I’d tell my younger self, in roughly this chronological order:

1 Seek the advice and viewpoints of a competent therapist and your physician

This can help you gain a better knowledge of what is going on and broaden the range of healthy coping strategies available to you. Understanding oneself is a lifelong adventure that we all confront; having a trusted and experienced advisor(s) by your side can exponentially increase your self-awareness.

After all, the greatest method to fix a problem is to first have a very clear grasp of what the problem is.

2 Avoid the double arrow

The first arrow represents the sensation of social anxiety, while the second represents negative sentiments about yourself for experiencing anxiety and/or how you handled a given circumstance.

One of the most significant life improvements I made was to stop judging myself negatively for feeling uncomfortable in social situations. It enabled me to simply feel the anxiety and deal with it on my own.

I didn’t need to add subjective judgments about what those feelings did or did not imply about me.

The terrible and uncomfortable feelings persisted, but at least I wasn’t complicating and complicating the matter.

3. Build small wins in as many adjacent areas of your life as possible

Social anxiety can lower your self-esteem, making your world feel smaller and more limited.

I discovered that focusing effort on performance areas where my social anxiety was not a limiting factor might offset and even reverse this. It was team sports for me - I understood the rules, was good at them, and used the positive reinforcement and acceptance from my peers to make small gains in areas where I used to feel anxious, for example, it provided me with a structure and support system that I felt safe within, so stepping outside of that became less risky.

The school became a source of pride and accomplishment from which I could draw. The idea is to find something that you both enjoy and can excel at, and to do so in a way that brings you into greater contact with others while maximizing positive sentiments and interactions.

As a side note, relying on success in a certain area for self-esteem might leave you vulnerable to crashes if your performance falters, because your self-worth becomes contingent, e.g., I have worth. After all, I am a good (athlete/scholar/artist/musician/etc).

This can be mitigated by constantly focusing on broadening the breadth and magnitude of your minor victories - it boosts your chances of developing a more stable feeling of self-worth and, honestly, leads to a more fulfilling life.

4. Balance the long view with a daily commitment to improvement

I’ve been through several phases of severe misery and self-loathing in which, despite external accomplishment, I was suffering on the inside.

I got through it by realizing that, while I couldn’t change the immediate situation (e.g., relieve myself of worry), I could make investments in myself that would increase my chances of a better life in the future. I would repeatedly tell myself, “Just one more day is all you need.” Day after day, I concentrated on getting through the next one, always with the hope that the sacrifices I was making would result in a better life.

5. Be prepared to do things that scare you

This one is difficult yet vital. It does not imply putting oneself in danger or taking unwarranted risks. Accepting difficult jobs or undertakings in which success is conceivable but not assured.

For me, this began with working my absolute hardest to accomplish my undergraduate degree despite having a difficult experience at university. The next game involved attending graduate school in a new city. Following that, I completed an internship with an international organization in a place where I did not understand the language. Following that, I traveled alone to a distant country with no set itinerary or activities.

6. When you are ready, open up to people you trust

I masked my social anxiety from the people I loved and cared about, which made maintaining intimate connections tough. I am grateful that I dared to open up to people about what I was going through and how it was affecting my life. It made it so much easier for me to be myself, and it helped to alleviate the embarrassment I felt about having it in the first place. You must be cautious about this step since the incorrect person(s) will exploit it.

That’s why I started seeing a therapist - it gives you a solid starting point and gives you a better idea of what you want to keep private and what you think would be beneficial to share with others.

I hope this experience sharing was helpful. For what it’s worth, the advice I gave above has served me well in many ways. Having said that, I still struggle from time to time and must return to the advice above in order to continue learning and improve my life.

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